On taxes, war and the state of politics

By JOHN FRANK, Times Staff Writer
Published August 30, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite has called on the White House to give a true assessment of the war when it issues a much-anticipated report in September from the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

The Brooksville Republican said Tuesday that she is hinging her judgment of the troop "surge" on the forthcoming account by Army Gen. David Petraeus. But she worries the Bush administration will manipulate the findings to paint a rosy picture of the Iraq war.

"I think Congress needs assurances that, whatever the report is, that it is Gen. Petraeus' report and not the ghost of Karl Rove," she said in a wide-ranging interview with St. Petersburg Times editorial writers and news reporters.

As a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Brown-Waite also warned against replacing outgoing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales with Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, who has been named as a possible successor.

"Chertoff has not been very responsive on homeland security," she said. "No matter who President Bush nominates it is going to be a battle. We need someone who can restore confidence in the Justice Department."

Brown-Waite wasted no words in describing her disgust with Gonzales. She suggested he step down in April.

"Bye, bye. I won't cry," she said. "His credibility was totally shot ."

Times staff members sat down with the member of Congress when she was home for the August recess and discussed local issues, such as government spending, as well as national topics, including the 2008 presidential race. Here are excerpts of what she said:

On the need to set binding benchmarks for the Iraqi government:

"I would like to see a 'you do it by (this date) or we're out of there,' " she said. "Set a date because I don't think the Iraqis believe we'll leave."

On the need for a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq:

Brown-Waite expects to see troops coming home "by the end of the year," but a long-term military force should remain in the region. "I think we need to start a phased draw-down in Iraq but we also need to maintain a presence in Afghanistan," she said. "I think we lose Afghanistan if we just do not have a presence there."

"We will have to have troops there until there is stability. I just don't think they need to be on the front line. I think the Iraqis need to be the ones on the front line."

On the January voter referendum for a super homestead exemption on property taxes:

Brown-Waite said she doesn't know whether she'll vote for the referendum. "I haven't had a chance to personally look at what it would mean for me," she said. "I think everybody is going to do the math."

The latest property tax legislation approved by the state Legislature saved her "under $200," she said.

On some levels, she doesn't understand the fuss. "People who move here from other areas, they don't see what the big to-do is," she said. "It's still a reasonable tax rate."

That said, the former Hernando County commissioner agrees with the calls for lower spending. Commissioners "need to refocus their spending on what citizens truly want," she said. "And the citizens want less spending. The question is how you achieve it."

On 2008 presidential politics, and her endorsement of Mitt Romney instead of Rudy Giuliani:

Brown-Waite said she has no opinion on the hoopla surrounding Florida's earlier presidential primary. "I try to stay out of state issues," she explained.

The winning formula for the next president, she thinks, is the candidate who "is able to ensure people that their focus will be on keeping America safe and prosperity in America. Those issues are issues people care about."

She picked former Massachusetts governor Romney because "he has the kind of vision for America that I don't see in any others."

"A lot of people say to me, 'Well you're from New York, why don't you support (former New York City Mayor Rudy) Giuliani?' " she said. "Um, let me put it this way: I know Giuliani. I'm supporting Mitt Romney."

Brown-Waite thinks a presidential bid by former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee would benefit Giuliani, but it wouldn't make her consider changing loyalties.

On the immigration debate:

Brown-Waite said illegal immigration is the No. 1 issue for her constituents. "Just like the Iraqis need security, we need security," she said. "We need the continuation of the fence and/or unmanned aerial vehicles along the border. You've got to stop the flow first and then deal with the people here."

The latter issue isn't likely to get solved in the near future, she said, and sending all illegal immigrants back to their native homes is not practical.

She supports fines on employers who hire illegal workers, but acknowledges that farmers "need alien help."

"We need to increase the agricultural visas and clearly have a good tracking system, which does not exist now," she said. "But you are not going to get an increase in the agricultural visas until you seal the border because the problem is they come but they never go back."

As for legislation granting immigrants' legal resident status, the congresswoman didn't have a clear plan. "I would have to look at what the path to citizenship is," she added. "The one in the (previous) Senate bill was not one that I could live with because if anything I think it just rewarded illegal behavior."

On her bill for a national catastrophe fund to ease insurance woes:

Brown-Waite has pushed a national solution to the insurance crisis for years, but feels now is the best time to address the issue. She said she doesn't want to wait for a study commission, as proposed by Florida's U.S. senators.

"I think there is as much or more momentum than there was before," she said. "We are into the last week in August in the hurricane season. I'm not comfortable just studying it. We know what the issue is. We know the issue is reinsurance and having a federal backstop there. It's no longer just Florida whining."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or 754-6114.